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Milwaukee plumber the focus of President’s visit, highlighting Black-owned small business

Biden visits local plumber
Posted at 8:10 AM, Dec 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-21 09:10:14-05

MILWAUKEE — The dream of becoming a plumber started at an early age for Rashawn Spivey.

Now, he’s gone from fixing pipes to meeting the President.

“I never imagined my dream of becoming a plumber would have led to me meeting the United States President,” Spivey said.

President Biden at Hero
President Biden toured Hero Plumbing Wednesday in Milwaukee.

Spivey took President Joe Biden through his shop Wednesday. The visit is a result of a butterfly effect dating back to the great migration, when southern African Americans moved in droves to the north, looking for a better life. One of those people who moved to Milwaukee started the dream for Spivey.

“When I was young, I went to work with my mom and sometimes the owner of the business would allow me to help him out,” Spivey said.

Jim Nelson plumber
Jim Nelson moved to Milwaukee for a better life during the Great Migration. He's mentored generations of plumbers in Milwaukee, including Rashawn Spivey as a 12-year-old.

That man, Jim Nelson, runs a plumbing business on 27th & Atkinson. Now, Spivey runs a plumbing business right next door. Without Nelson, there’s no telling if Spivey would be where he is now. He started his business, Hero Plumbing, in 2010. Wednesday, he introduced the President of the United States during a visit to Milwaukee.

“Starting at age 12, I rode on the trucks when [Nelson] did plumbing jobs around the city,” Spivey said. “This piqued my interest, and I decided I want to become a plumber.”

“I remember when he was a kid,” Nelson said. “I called him my stepson. He worked with me when he was young. He’s a good boy.”

Nelson moved to Milwaukee from Mississippi some 50 years ago. He’s responsible for teaching and mentoring generations of plumbers in the City of Milwaukee, including Spivey. Their stories are remarkably similar, Nelson started plumbing when he was 15; just a few years older than Spivey was.

It’s proven to be successful for Nelson, now 84 years old. But success like this for a Black entrepreneur in Milwaukee hasn’t always been easy.

“Decades of discrimination and trickle-down economics left communities like this one behind,” Biden said. “Today, we’re making sure Milwaukee is coming back. All of Milwaukee is coming back.”

During Wednesday’s visit, Biden touted the work his administration has done in improving Black small businesses. According to the Small Business Administration, loans to black-owned small businesses have tripled since 2020. These efforts benefit other businesses like Spivey’s. It’s allowing him to live up to his business’s name.

Hero Plumbing.

Hero Plumbing
Hero Plumbing near 27th & Atkinson is a lifelong dream for Rashawn Spivey.

“We have been able to replace 600 lead lateral pipes across the city,” Spivey said. “Mostly at childcare centers.”

“Think of the lives saved,” Biden said. “Think of the jobs and opportunity if you’re small-business owners like Rashawn, replacing lead pipes in homes and daycare centers, in schools.”

Additionally, Black employment in Milwaukee is at its highest point in 10 years and Black wealth nationwide is up 60 percent since the pandemic. Though, the Chair of the Milwaukee North Branch of the GOP questions these accomplishments.

“I think there’s a disconnect there,” Orlando Owens said. “I think most people don’t feel this ‘Bidenomics’ happening. They feel more, you know, ‘Biden-in-the-behind-nomics’ if anything. I don’t see it happening.”

Owens questions whether small business success equate general Black economic prosperity overall.

According to the Small Business Administration, the 19,256 Black-owned businesses in the state make up 4.2 percent of all small businesses in Wisconsin.

“You have to have a working class to buy the product or services that these Black businesses want to offer,” Owens said. “When you don’t have a working population and it is more dependent on government funding from W2 unemployment benefits, you don’t have a real gainful middle class.”

He points to low high school graduation rates, numbers of unemployed, and higher incarceration rates as issues he feels the Biden administration is failing Milwaukee.

But through the lens of Spivey, it’s a story of Black success in Cream City.

“This is what President Biden’s administration is all about,” Spivey said. “Helping us all become a part of an economy that works for everyone so dreams can be achieved with dignity.”